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22 May 2014

Northern Ireland - time to vote

Northern Ireland - time to vote

The European and local council elections today mark the first of three consecutive years of elections in Northern Ireland. Next year we vote with the rest of the UK for our MPs in Westminster and in 2016 we decide our local MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) for Stormont.

In Northern Ireland these elections will see the first shadow councillors voted into the new 'super councils'. The new councillors will formally take up their positions next May as part of local government reform and the reduction of twenty six regional councils down to eleven. This is local politics - things like bin collections, litter and dog fouling, planning and urban regeneration.

On the other hand the European elections are continental in scale. Our MEPs make decisions that have implications across the whole of the EU and beyond. This ranges from issues like agriculture and banking to fundamental human rights and freedoms like life and family.

Perhaps the danger for these elections is that they fall between two stools for many of us. They seem too small and local to really matter and at the same time too huge and removed to impact on our daily lives. The fact is that the outcome of these elections will fundamentally affect us locally and at a European level in the years to come. The result of these elections will also set the posture and political landscape for Stormont this year and for the next two elections here.

Recently many Christians have told us they are struggling to find people and parties who accurately represent their views. Many feel they might be sacrificing their convictions on some issues like reconciliation or the environment by voting to protect life or marriage or vice versa? And what about education, health, agriculture, welfare and wellbeing? The 'problem' for Christians is that everything is important and under the Kingdom rule of God. So how should Christians vote on Thursday and in the years ahead?

Put simply, there is no 'Christian Party', no single way for all Christians to vote. We encourage careful consideration of the bible, conscience and ballot paper. These decisions are difficult to navigate and may involve holding many different principles in tension. The worldwide Church of Christ is a wide body and different parts have different priorities. Some parts like the hands are drawn to help practically, others like the feet spread good news. So for some their priority will be the poor, for others the marginalized, for others freedom and justice, for others family and life. It's not a case of either/or, the Church should be standing up for all these values.

On a similar note, the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Noel Treanor penned these words on Christian citizenship and the forthcoming elections. They attracted some heated discussion in the media about the place of church and faith in the public square. It's a timely reminder that Christian voice is vital in every sense of the word.

There is probably no party that stands squarely behind everything you value. Voting is a challenge to everyone, making them think about where their priorities lie. As Christians in Northern Ireland in rapidly changing culture times, it may even mean departing from old defaults.

Followers of Jesus often inhabit a radically different worldview to those being proposed by the political parties. We have intersections of common ground like equality, justice, truth and freedom but again Christians understand these concepts very differently. Our culture seeks equality without recognising Christ and the cross as the great equaliser in whom there is no Greek, Jew, slave, free, male or female. Our culture seeks justice without recognising the judge of all the earth. Our culture seeks truth and freedom but fails to recognise the Truth by whom we are set free.

The alternative is to resign your voice to silence, to opt out of the political process. The freedom to vote is one which comes with responsibilities. Voting, even considered vote-spoiling, is an important way to make your voice heard. While voting is not the mark of a Christian, followers of Jesus do not have the option to opt out of their God-given authority and responsibility.

You already know that Christian presence, voice and leadership in the public square is core to what we're about at the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland. We particularly support and encourage those Christians who have taken the difficult step of political servant-leadership. Encourage where you can, challenge when you must.

Above all love and serve the King and his kingdom.

Finally, here are some helpful resources on the European elections.